The end of the biological sciences… we knew them

In his book “The end of Science”(1997), James Horgan explores in depth what is left to be known about Nature and the Universe at the end of the XX century. It is an interesting question and one that lies at the heart of the scientific endeavour. Advances in the Physical Sciences, in particular, give the impression that all there is left to know are a few footnotes and, yes, there was the Higgs Boson……. But what about Biology?

It has been said that Science will end when we learn more and more about less and less and while Physics has always had its questions well defined –and thus we know when the end is nigh- of late, research in Biology feels like a supermarket trolley of exactly that: more and more about less and less. A look at the indexes of leading journals reveals an uncanny interest in arcane subjects which, of course, are interesting and provide knowledge but are hardly the stuff of the genetic code, the relationship between DNA and proteins of the nature of the genes that control development. Most of the time what we read about is a “new function” of a well known protein, or some isoform or new gene participating in a process where we already have dozens of participants. Additions to ever-growing lists, bean counting…… Every now and then we do get an interesting idea or result and the rightly famous Yamanaka experiment is a good example of this but, for the most part, Biology is an interesting parade of data in search of a good question. In order to raise the importance of our toilings (and get funding), scientists use hyperbole and when it is not us, it is the journals we publish in that foist this upon us. Looking at the journals, by the criterion put above (the end will come when we learn more and more about less and less) we face ‘the end of Biology”… we know it. But there might be more to this.

Two parallel developments are contributing to this situation. The first one is in the nature of Biology and its multifaceted structure. Our interest in description and classification has collided with the structure of the cell and the advent of modern genetics to generate a machine of data collection, description and classification which could easily have no end. In the XIX century naturalists collected, described and classified animals and plants. At the beginning of the XXI century we do the same with genes and proteins. Nobody will doubt the value of this enterprise (information is the currency of Science and, certainly of Biology) but we should recognize its limited value and its role in avoiding the important questions (if we can find them) –see the posting on maps, December 2012. Thinking about this you may wonder what happened in the XX century. Well, some of the same took place in the small scale but, forced by a number of events, we were busy creating the technology and the frameworks to understand what we had classified before. In doing so, modern Biology emerges but instead of pursuing the lines of thought that were laid out we decided to come back to classifications………in a new framework.

There is a sequence in Science: data collection and classification always precede the emergence of a framework. Thus, J Kepler wanted to work in Prague because Tycho Brahe had the data about the objects in the sky that he needed to develop his theoretical framework. Later on, Newton needed Kepler’s work and more data to develop his celestial mechanics. And the data for Kepler and Newton neeeded to be good quality and well organized. Two centuries later, Darwin thrived on the work of amateur and professional naturalists. The analogy with today is easy. The high throughput work feeds on the toiling of the low throughput biologists to generate archives of enhancers, promoters, histone modifications and microRNAs, and Evo-Devo thrives on the work of genetics and model organisms. The problem with all this, at the moment, is that really it is more and more about less and less. All necessary, probably, but, in some ways, it is not clear what is important, what is essential and what is just data in papers.

How much information do we need to answer a question? What are the questions? Or as Horgan would put it, are there questions? If there are (and I am not interested in what journals sell us as questions in the disguise of hyped small findings) they are being brushed under the carpet. Of course, Biomedical research does show some progress but this is to Biology what Engineering is to Physics. More on this later.

There is something else happening in parallel with the narrowing of our questions which is having an impact on the dynamics of knowledge. It is a subtle transformation of how we go about it from an enquiry based endeavour into a business orientated one. Finding out things about Nature has changed to publishing papers and getting grants. Questions have turned into finding funding. Competition for publications and funding has transformed trying to answer questions commonly recognized as important to defining a niche in which one can work. Labs have become small businesses that try to obtain funding to continue to do what they/we do, and publications are the means to obtain more funding. A complex loop has been created between publications, careers, funding and positions where the nature and the quality of the research are secondary. The main aim is survival and the measure of whether we will has been defined the impact factor and how well you sell your product which, by the way, is not knowledge (though this is what the marketing says) but the publication and the maintenance of small labour groups. Instead of watches or textile products, we sell genes and proteins, but the mechanics is the same. We use students and postdocs not as people whom we teach how to peer into Nature but as employees which have to work for the success of our business in the belief that they are helping their future.

And thus, the fact that there are many genes, many functions and many cell types fuels the competition between the different business. Each lab selling from journal based soap box their (our) findings, extolling the virtues of the genes we work on. It often surprises me the way our science is measured with questions like “how many people you have in your lab” or with statements like “ did you see the publication of X in Y”, both above an interest in the actual question of the research. Maybe this is what it should be in the time of the You Tube generation, but I surely hope that we do not lose sight of our traditional ways and content. I am not saying that we need to go back to the 1960s or the 1980s, but, if we want Biology to remain interesting at large (and not in a statistical manner) we do need to change the fabric of what we do and blend what is good in the new world in which we live, with some of the spirit of old. And, at this, you may want to ask: are there Questions in Biology? I would say yes and will endeavour to pose some of them here in a near future. Watch this space.